Show Biz Pizzazz Makes For a Very Special
GrooveLily: It is Landau’s concept to build the entire production around her performing songwriters, Valerie Vigoda (electric violin), Brendan Milburn (keyboards), and Gene Lewin (drums). The opening finds them in a black box in the middle of the entirely black proscenium stage. Their hands are nodding about and onto their instruments and a couple of their chairs are levitating. As they launch into a musical prelude, it is clear that they are off in dreamland. At the end of the proceedings, we will again see them similarly nodding their heads about as their common dream concludes. They also play three of the worker-players who rehearse and then enact the story of Pyramus and Thisbe for the wedding of the Duke of Athens. We are assured in a program note that the lyrics for all but two of their songs are taken directly from Shakespeare. It may help some get a handle on their style to note that they describe themselves as “Steely Dan meets Barenaked Ladies meets Sarah McLaughlin and Meatloaf.” I thought that I heard elements ranging from baroque to pop rock to cabaret style jazz. Mood setting underscoring, a number of song fragments, and full scale songs and musical production numbers are present. Some of the fragments seem to slow down the proceedings, there are large sections of text without songs, and, near the end, the play seems forgotten as the players' presentation to the court turns into a series of musical numbers. However, on the basis of a first hearing, I would say that the music is largely melodious, artful and pleasing, and it underscores the words comfortably, so that once our ears adjust to the audio ambiance, we are able to hear them as well as fully comprehend their meaning.
How Are The Young Lovers: Lovers Lysander and Hermia flee to the forest outside Athens. Demetrius loves Hermia, too, and follows them into the forest. Helena loves Demetrius, so she follows him. The clumsy application of potions by the fairies will yield new permutations. Landau’s lovers have a contemporary, modern feel about them. The young men are especially randy, and quickly remove clothes in their pursuit of gratification. As a result, Lysander cavorts for much of the time in his shorts. Some good music here, but no stinting on the Shakespeare either. James Martinez gives an exceptionally fine reading as Lysander. Stacey Sargeant as his Hermia and Will Fowler as Demetrius are natural and charming. One of the real jewels of this Midsummer Night's Dream is Brenda Withers’ Helena. Her witty and naturalistic line readings make Shakespeare’s words sound as if they were newly minted. Withers is so totally at home playing the role that she brings Helena smack dab into the 21st century.
The Other Actors: Demond Green (in drag) as the player Flute hilariously partners DeLaria in a major musical selection late in the proceedings. Stephen Payne draws laughs here in the role of the lead player, Peter Quince. He also plays Egeus. Jay Goede doubles nicely as The Duke of Athens and Oberon. Ditto for Ellen McLaughlin as Hippolyta and Titiana.
The Physical Production: The physical production matches the inventiveness of the other elements. At the start, as the black box housing GrooveLily slides to the rear of the stage, the court at Athens appears in the form of a brightly lit stage filling, free standing wall, made up mostly of large white tiles. It is covered at various heights across its width by 24 double candle holders. When the play moves into the forest, the white tiled wall is removed, revealing an open black stage whose dominant design feature is a large number of tall, stage high steel poles with foot rests for climbing. For the concluding scenes back at court, set designer Louisa Thompson just adds several dozen strings of lights in front of the poles, allowing the play to continue in the dream space which she has designed for director Landau. The design allows some of the fairies to bungee jump as well as to string up hammocks and lay in them. Michael Krass’ costumes, white at court, clownishly comic for the players, and quite scant for Puck and the fairies, are fanciful, humorous and vaguely modern.
In Conclusion: This Tina Landau foray into the world of Shakespeare is likely to be much talked about and quite controversial. McCarter subscribers will likely find themselves intrigued as they fall out over the entire spectrum of opinion. However, many of the more conservative subscribers at co-producer Paper Mill are likely to take some offense. With this A Midsummer Night's Dream, there is something special in the air in New Jersey these days and you’ll likely want to breathe it in.
A Midsummer Night's Dream continues performances (Eves.: Tues – Thurs 7:30 p.m./ Fri & Sat 8 p.m.; Mats: Sat 3 p.m./ Sun 2 p.m.) through April 9 at the McCarter Theatre Center (Matthews Theatre), 91 University Place, Princeton, NJ 08540; Box office: 609-258-ARTS (2787); online www.mccarter.org
A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare; directed by
Theseus/ Oberon ……………………Jay Goede